Warning: This article discusses fictional portrayals and real incidents of sexual assault, abusive relationships, and domestic violence.
Last week Annette and I watched the movie “Compliance,” a controversial and disturbing 2012 American thriller written and directed by Craig Zobel.
The movie is set in a small-town fast food restaurant on a busy Friday evening. Things are not going well for manager Sandra Fromme (played by Ann Dowd). And they are about to get a whole lot worse.
Sandra receives a phone call from an “Officer Daniels” (Pat Healy). He tells her that the police have received a verified complaint that one of her employees stole some money from a customer’s purse that day. The employee is described as a blonde female approximately nineteen years old.
Officer Daniels: “Becky. Yeah, we have her name as Rebecca. That’s right, Becky.”
The voice on the phone exudes calm authority.
Compliance: deputized to perform a strip search
(Plot spoilers ahead)
With Officer Daniels on the phone, Sandra brusquely summons Becky to the back office. Becky insists she has done nothing wrong. Sandra follows the officer’s instructions to search Becky’s pockets and purse. When she finds nothing, Officer Daniels states that Becky can either be brought to the police station, booked, and held in a jail cell overnight, or Sandra can strip search her right there in the restaurant to find the stolen money. Sandra has serious qualms. Becky protests. But the caller meets all their questioning and hesitation with a mix of reasonable answers, direct orders, praise for cooperation, and threats of serious consequences if they don’t cooperate.
Becky reluctantly chooses to be searched in the store. Soon the pretty nineteen-year-old is naked, and her clothes are taken from the room. She is handed an apron to cover herself with.
The restaurant is packed with customers. Sandra must get back to work. Someone else will have to stand guard over Becky. A young male employee who is friendly with Becky refuses to have anything to do with the situation. At the caller’s suggestion, Sandra calls her fiancée Evan “Van” Balcer (Bill Camp), a hefty, balding middle aged man, to come to the restaurant.
Van also hesitates to follow the caller’s instructions, which escalate along an increasingly bizarre track—all made plausible by the calm, authoritative voice on the phone.
First, Van must take away the apron so that he can “inspect” and “search” Becky. Then she must turn around and bend over “to see if she’s holding anything in any of her orifices.” Next she is ordered to do jumping jacks “to see if we can get the money dislodged.” The caller asks Van what it’s like to have “a front row seat to the show” as Van peers between Becky’s legs. As a punishment for “disobeying,” the caller says that Becky must bend over Van’s lap for a “hard and long” spanking. Then, to reward for Van for his “assisting the police,” she must do something “really nice” for him—which turns out to be performing oral sex on him.
Van leaves shortly thereafter, feeling great remorse for his actions. Sandra calls in an older restaurant maintenance man to take his place. He smells a rat, and refuses to follow the caller’s instructions. Following up on his skepticism, a quick phone call to the regional manager reveals that the whole thing has been a terrible hoax. There is no “Officer Daniels.” Soon the restaurant is crawling with police, and a severely traumatized Becky is finally released from her ordeal.
Here is the official trailer for the movie “Compliance”:
The real story: Mount Washington, Kentucky, 2004
When the movie was first screened at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012, it was met with protests and walk-outs from viewers outraged at the sexual exploitation portrayed in the film.
But as outlandish and exploitative as the plot seems, all of the events it depicts actually happened.
The real incident took place on April 9, 2004, at a McDonald’s restaurant in the small town of Mount Washington, Kentucky.
There is no need to describe what happened because it is very much like what was shown in the movie. If anything, the movie spared its audience by not fully portraying the length, severity, and extreme degradation of the real-life prank call and sexual assault. Though there are no recordings of the phone conversation, the whole incident was caught by the security camera trained on the tiny back office where it happened. Here is a news piece that aired not long after the incident took place:
An appeals court document, McDonald Corporation v. Ogborn, contains a summary of the events that took place that day, and provides some of the legal argumentation surrounding it. For an extensive article covering the incident, see “A hoax most cruel: Caller coaxed McDonald’s managers into strip-searching a worker.”
The assistant manager who received the call was Donna Jean Summers. The young female employee, who had just turned eighteen, was Louise Ogborn. Jason Bradely (27) was the young male employee who refused to participate. The fiancé whom Donna called in to guard Ogborn was Walter “Wes” Nix, Jr. Maintenance man Thomas Simms (58) finally brought the prank call to an end. And the caller, who identified himself as “Officer Scott,” is widely believed to be David R. Stewart of Panama City, Florida—a married father of five. Stewart was arrested and tried, but not convicted by the jury, probably due to insufficient direct evidence linking him to the crime. However, after his arrest a decade-long string of strip search prank calls came to an end.
Walter Nix received a five year prison sentence for sexual abuse and other crimes. Donna Summers received one year of probation for unlawful imprisonment, and was also fired from her job. Louise Ogborn suffered from post-traumatic stress and depression. She eventually received a settlement of $1.1 million from McDonald’s. Summers also received a smaller settlement from McDonald’s.
Are people really that gullible?
You may be thinking, “That’s crazy! Who would fall for that?”
But far from being an isolated incident, in the decade leading up to the Mount Washington incident at least seventy restaurant and store managers in thirty U.S. states were duped into different variations of the strip search prank call scam.
When people hear about the strip search prank calls or other incidents in which someone did outrageous and terrible things under orders, their immediate response is often to think, “I would never do something like that!”
However, it seems that a large majority of people, when confronted with an authority figure, will indeed do what they are told to do even if it is harmful to others and against their own conscience.
That was the conclusion of the famous (or infamous) Milgram experiment conducted in the early 1960s at Yale University by psychologist Stanley Milgram. Volunteers were asked by a scientific authority figure to administer electric shocks of increasingly high voltage to a person in another room as part of a “learning experiment.” Despite the screams of the person receiving the shocks, an astounding 65% of the people participating in the experiment continued to increase the voltage until they had given the final—and potentially fatal—450 volt shock. (Unbeknownst to them, no real shocks were being administered. The person being “shocked” was an actor, and the screams were pre-recorded.)
The Stanford prison experiment conducted in the early 1970s came to similar conclusions. Volunteers were asked to take on the roles of guards and prisoners in a mock prison. The experiment was intended to run for two weeks. But after six days the “guards” had become so cruel and overbearing, and the “prisoners” had become so abject and beat down that the experiment had to be ended early.
These and other psychological experiments confirmed what many people already knew from real life events such as the Nazi holocaust: ordinary people will harm, torture, and even kill other people when ordered to do so by an authority figure, or when given free rein in a position of authority. The string of strip search prank calls in the late 1990s and early 2000s is a scandalous and shameful reminder of the things people will do under orders from someone who is in a real or perceived position of power.
The love affair between evil and deception
As fascinating and unsettling as it is that ordinary people will do terrible things when ordered to do so, there is a deeper layer to events such as these.
Evil is being perpetrated. And falsity, otherwise known as deception, is covering for the evil.
It’s obvious that the prank caller had evil intent. We don’t need to quibble about whether he thought his actions were evil, or whether he just thought he was getting his jollies. Over seventy times, he or someone else like him conned others into extremely humiliating and degrading situations that involved forced nudity and sexual assault. That’s evil.
In order to carry out those evil actions, he engaged in a sustained campaign of deception. Nearly everything he said was false. He was not a police officer. No theft had occurred. There were no victims of or witnesses to the non-existent crimes. He was not in touch with local authorities or with restaurant officials. And all of the “reasons” he gave for his bizarre and outlandish orders were pure falsehoods designed to cover his real reasons: getting others under his control and forcing them to satisfy his own sick cravings.
The caller did use bits of real information, such as the names of people higher up in the local restaurant’s chain of command. He’d done his research. But those bits of “truth” were themselves twisted into falsehoods (“I’ve got Mr. _____, your Regional Manager, on the other line”) to support the overall deception.
Without all of the deception, otherwise known as “falsity,” the caller never could have carried out his evil schemes.
That’s why evil loves deception. Deception is a tool in the hands of evil, enabling it to accomplish its destructive purposes. And deception depends on evil to sustain it and fool people into believing that the false picture it presents is true and real.
Evil and deception love one another.
But it is not a stable relationship. You see, evil doesn’t care what particular falsity it uses. If one doesn’t work, it will dump that one and try another. The relationship between evil and deception is a marriage of convenience. It lasts only as long as it is advantageous to both parties.
Evil and deception in domestic violence and abuse
The love affair between evil and deception is not limited to strip search prank calls. This false psychological “romance” is in full swing wherever human beings are exploiting and hurting other human beings.
Another example is domestic violence.
People who perpetrate domestic abuse are purposely engaging in evil and deceptive practices both during the part of the cycle of abuse in which they are verbally or physically abusing their partner and during the part of the cycle in which they apologize for their abuse and act thoughtful, charming, and nice.
During the actively abusive part of the cycle, they use verbal and physical abuse to tear down their partner and blame everything on her (or him), destroying the victim’s sense of integrity and self-worth. Although it is the abuser who is acting inhuman, he (or she) makes the victim feel sub-human instead. As the abuser presents it, all of the abuse is always the victim’s fault. That’s totally false.
During the “make-up” part of the cycle abusers put on a false façade of remorse for their actions and of love and concern for their partner, in order to reel their partner in and keep her (or him) under their control. And the cycle of emotional and physical abuse continues.
When I was in seminary in the 1990s I did an internship at Emerge, a domestic violence counseling and education center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. One of the counselors told the story of how he had asked a man who was in the program, “Why do you hit your wife?” The man replied, “Because she’s so immature.” The counselor’s comment: “Some of us think that hitting is immature.”
The truth is that abusers engage in abuse in order to dominate and control their partners. Saying that they do it because their partner “is immature” is pure deception in order to justify their own abusive behavior. But abusers use this and many other deceptions to blame their behavior on those they are abusing. They also use deception to tear down their victim’s sense of truth and integrity so that it will be easier to make their victims into slaves who will serve and obey their every wish and whim.
The power of self-deception
Do these abusive people really know what they are doing? Or are they just following blind instinct to control and dominate their partners?
Abusers know . . . and don’t know at the same time. Since their entire world revolves around themselves, they distort everything into a false picture of the world. They deceive the people they are abusing, and they also deceive themselves. They are driven by their own self-centered loves and desires, which are evil because they are all about power and pleasure for themselves at the expense of others. (Healthy self-love is balanced with love and respect for others.)
Whereas love draws truth to itself, evil draws falsity to itself. Evil desires thrive on deception and a false picture of the world. The minds of people who are driven by evil are infected with falsity, so that even though they are acting with evil intent, they deceive themselves into thinking that they are righteous, and that what they are doing is right and good. This makes them even more dangerous.
Their self-deception makes it extremely difficult for any real change in their character to take place. In order to truly change, they would have to make a fundamental change in their loves and desires, from self-centered to caring for others. But in order to see and admit that such change is necessary, they would have to pierce through layers and layers of falsity and self-deception, which they have fastened onto themselves like evil armor to protect and justify their underlying selfishness. Until they have pierced their own illusions, they cannot even see the evil in their hearts that needs to be changed.
Although they theoretically could pierce their own falsity and self-deception and change their evil hearts, for people who have settled into a long-established pattern of abusiveness this is so unlikely to happen that for all practical purposes their victims can simply assume that the abuser will never change. For the victims, the only real solution is to get away from those who are abusing them.
The people who ran the Emerge program used to say that despite all of the focused anti-abuse counseling and education the men received at their center, only 3% to 5% of those who went through their program would truly change their character and become non-abusive. And the counselors did take satisfaction in those few men that they were able to influence toward real reform. For the rest, the best they could hope for was that the abusers would back off from the worst forms of violence, and ratchet their abuse back a step or two.
The fact remains that if these abusive people truly wanted to change, they could change. Their self-deception is willful. That’s why those who engage in domestic violence and abuse remain guilty of and responsible for all of their evil and destructive actions.
What about people who are ordered to hurt others?
Now we get to the hardest part. We’ve talked about those who perpetrate evil out of their own evil, selfish, and thoughtless motives. Domestic abusers, the person or people who made the strip search prank calls. These are just two examples of people who engage in evil actions out of their own internal motivation. There are many others.
What about the people who carried out the orders of the prank caller? What about other people who do evil things because some authority figure ordered them to?
As much as we might like to say, “They were just following orders,” that’s too superficial an explanation. What about the two employees who refused to participate? If receiving an order from an authority figure inevitably leads good people to do bad things, why do some people say, “No sir! I won’t do it!”
There is a deep and uncomfortable truth at work here: none of us is free from the taint of evil.
No, I don’t mean some supposed “original sin” that many churches say we are all born with.
I mean that deep in our psyche, each one of us has evil and destructive motives and desires mixed in with our good and constructive motives.
If we manage to treat others well and live a good life overall, it’s not because we have no evil in us. It’s because we have mostly been able to suppress and overrule our selfish, greedy, and harmful desires, and instead express the better part of ourselves in our words and actions.
We are not good by default. We are good when we choose to express the good parts of ourselves rather than the evils part of ourselves.
Who’s responsible for the evil we do?
What does this mean for those who carry out wrong and destructive actions under orders from an authority figure?
The uncomfortable fact is that even if someone is ordering us to do something, we are still responsible for our own evil and destructive actions.
In the case of the strip search prank calls, the courts have held that those who carried out the illegal actions must still be held legally accountable for what they did even though they believed at the time that a police officer was ordering them to do it. Depending on the severity of their offenses, they have received fines, probation, or jail time.
These verdicts against people who acted “under orders” are in line with court decisions in many other cases. These decisions follow a principle that was firmly established in modern Western law by the Nuremburg Trials of Nazi war criminals, and expressed as Principle IV of the Nuremburg principles: “The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him of responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.” In other words, “I was just following orders” is not an acceptable excuse under the law.
Why is this so?
Because when we follow an illegal and destructive order, we ourselves become a participant in the illegal and destructive act. And we could have said “no.”
Why don’t people always say “no”?
This is where the marriage of evil and deception does its dirty work.
When we are ordered to do something that we know or feel is wrong, we have a choice to make. We can either follow the order or we can refuse to follow it. We are, after all, human beings, not robots. Assuming we are fully functional adults, we are able to make moral choices and determine our own actions, regardless of what someone else tells us to do.
If we do carry out an illegal or destructive order, both our motivation and our thinking mind must assent to it. We may be “following orders,” but we ourselves are doing something that hurts another human being. We must convince ourselves that it is the right thing to do. And we must have some desire or motive to carry it out.
Unfortunately, deception can work on our minds, and draw out the evil that is hidden within each one of us. When we humans become convinced that we are “doing the right thing,” we can engage in all manner of destructive and even horrific actions that our better self would never desire or assent to.
This is what is happening when people harm others because some authority figure has told them to. It’s not just submitting to authority. It’s a process of convincing ourselves that what the authority figure is telling us to do is right and good—even if it is actually destructive and evil. And the self-deception we then engage in allows the evil hidden in our own hearts to come out and express itself.
That’s why people who carry out those destructive orders often feel great remorse afterwards. And if they don’t, it’s usually either because they simply can’t face the reality and consequences of what they have done or because they continue to justify their evil actions as being good and right—thus making themselves complicit.
Are we all evil?
Does this mean that people who carry out evil orders are themselves evil? Not necessarily. As I said before, all of us have evil motives and desires mixed in with our good motives. Most of the time, most of us manage to overrule the evil within us, and express the good instead.
Sometimes, though, the marriage of convenience between the evil in us and the deception that covers for it gets the better of us, and we do things that neither we nor anyone else would ever have believed we were capable of.
Are we still responsible for those actions? Yes we are. And if we realize that we have done something very wrong—even if we were “following orders”—we must still admit to what we have done, take responsibility for it, accept the consequences, and make amends and restitution as we are able.
The conclusion is not that we humans are inevitably and unalterably evil. Rather, it is that we are all capable of great evil if the evil within us, and the self-deception that is its lover and partner, are not psychologically and spiritually chained up and imprisoned so that they do not come out in our words and actions.
How do we accomplish that task of chaining and restraining our inner evil and deception so that they don’t take over our lives and make us into evil people? That is the subject of my previous article, “What does Jesus Mean when He Says we Must be Born Again?”
(Note: The section above on “The power of self-deception” includes an edited version of comments I made on a recent post by another blogger titled “A Good Day…So Far…”)
For further reading: